Aurora Airport and Farmland Destruction

[Editor's note] Ben Williams, President of Friends of French Prairie, authored the My Turn article and letter to the editor below. It is posted on the Oregon Aviation Watch website with the permission of the author. Friends of French Prairie, which is an an affiliate of 1000 Friends of Oregon, advocates on behalf of preserving family farming in Aurora, Woodburn, St. Paul, Hubbard and other Marion County agricultural communities. Additional information on the adverse impacts of Aurora Airport expansion is available at their website,

My Turn: French Prairie farmland needs to be protected

Ben Williams
Posted on OAW January 4, 2012

To paraphrase the World War I novel, most residents of Metro I speak to seem to think "it's all quiet on the Southern Front." All too many think that the development issues of the past few years are settled (no casino, no tribal land ploys, etc.) and the Metro urban/rural reserves process is completed and behind us, etc.

Well, don't be fooled by what you can't see and don't hear about. Those who aim to make millions developing farm land in French Prairie are hard at work behind the scenes, waiting for a few more things to come together so they can make their next bold moves.

First, a little context about why this matters to Metro residents. Oregon has very little prime farmland, and 78% of that is in the Willamette Valley. The soil quality in the Willamette Valley is highest in the north (i.e. French Prairie) and gets poorer as you go south. From 1982 to 2007 over 172,000 acres of prime farmland in the Willamette Valley were lost to development. The take away from this is simply that those who want to develop south of Wilsonville along I-5 want to do so on the best part of our agricultural heritage.

The coming onslaught is shaping up in three areas. The first has to do with the Aurora Airport, where the Marion County Commissioners have already approved an "urban scale" development on what used to be 27.5 acres of EFU farmland on the corner of Kiel and Airport Roads that will house another large helicopter operator. That doesn't bode well for the two adjoining EFU pieces to the north. Urban scale in this case, means 30 foot high tilt-up concrete hangar buildings that look more like an industrial complex than a rural airport. And there are two more pieces of farmland adjoining the airport and marked as likely for aviation development.

Meanwhile, over the past year Oregon Department of Aviation, under the oversight of the Oregon Board of Aviation, has been conducting an update to the Aurora State Airport Master Plan. This multi-year process is separate from the FAA decision to place an air traffic control tower at the Aurora Airport for safety reasons, and has included multiple meetings, and a Public Advisory Committee (PAC) comprised of airport users, representatives of local municipalities and concerned citizens. To the surprise of many, on March 10 of this year, ODA and the consultant presented the Preferred Alternative to the Aviation Board, based on data such as number of based aircraft, number of constrained flights, number of large aircraft using the airport, etc., which recommended strengthening the runway, but no lengthening of the runway or expansion of the airport. Apparently that caught the aviation interests off guard, because between then and the next Aviation Board meeting in April, more data was collected (in the form of additional surveys) and Board Chair Mark Gardiner was implying no runway lengthening was unacceptable. He suggested that 600 and 800 foot runway lengthening options (with limits on landings) should be explored.

And what happened at the Board meeting in April? The new survey data (primarily from aviation interests) was presented in isolation from the originally collected data to show that "the majority" favored extension, and ODA and the consultant were directed to consider two other alternatives with limits on landings: one which lengthened the runway by 800 feet to the north, the other 600 feet to the south. The 600 foot extension to the south was eventually dropped and the 800 foot extension to the north was included in the master plan and sent to the FAA. This was done knowing full well that the FAA (who will be paying for any lengthening) opposed anything short of 1,000 feet, used for take-offs and landings in both directions. Which means that after a process that resulted in an initial recommendation of no expansion we will get:

  • Closure of Kiel Road on the south end of the airport
  • A recommendation that ODA acquire EFU farmland to the south of the airport to expand the Runway Safety Area
  • Designation of EFU farmland south to Ehlen Road as an extension of the Runway Protection Zone which limits use.
  • A longer and stronger runway which will accommodate large corporate jets, none of which are presently based at the airport.

It's not like ODA is a neutral party in this. Why were they so easily swayed by the Aviation Board? Perhaps because 69% of the Department income comes from fuel income and the jet fuel tax--longer runway means more bigger jets which means more fuel sales! Then there's the FAA. They know about the Preferred Alternative, but their position is 1,000 feet or no money. The data isn't there to support expansion, but they hold the purse strings and are pushing for a much longer runway and bigger airport. Which allows the Aviation Board to say "we tried for a moderate expansion, but got overruled by the FAA." And then, by the way, earlier this year the City of Salem voted to lengthen their runway. So in this economy we have the FAA working on runway expansion at two small airports 25 miles apart! Where are our Congressional representatives in the face of a Federal agency that clearly has no time for local decision making? For that matter, where is our Governor and his transportation staff?

The second fact is that the pro-development forces have worked effectively in the past year to change the whole tenor in Wilsonville--the municipality that includes Charbonneau south of the river, and which has the most skin in the game in terms of infrastructure. Historically the City's position has been: "the infrastructure in place is at capacity." But, facts like that have never stopped a determined developer, and now the Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce Board is strongly pro-development, as are some on the City Council.

Lurking in the wings are the Maletis brothers, Tom and Chris, who own Langdon Farms and 285 adjoining acres of EFU farmland. They are still working to overturn Metro's decision designating the Clackamas County part of French Prairie as Rural Reserves for 40-50 years. Should it be changed, say, to Undesignated, the door would be open to make a development case.....especially if the Aurora Airport takes off and starts to expand. Conveniently their land adjoins the Aurora Airport to the north, and development at the airport helps make their case. Which may explain the regular use of lobbyists in Salem to forward their cause. Further, if anyone wonders why Dave Hunt, formerly of the State Legislature in Salem now thinks that running for Clackamas County Chair is a good career move, consider that the Maletis brothers have donated $2,500 to his campaign. What is their ultimate goal? Bringing a good dose of that Salem legislative expertise to Clackamas County?

Farmland is the easiest to develop: it's flat and usually has good water. Having good farmland alongside a major freeway and just south of a metro area is a developers' dream. But, this is not just any farmland, it's among the best in the world. French Prairie is Oregon's agricultural and historic heartland, and it needs to be protected. Being a rich and successful developer doesn't give you the right to overturn the laws and make millions more while destroying a major state asset, anymore than being Chair of the State Aviation Board gives you the right to overrule a public process and decide to expand a state airport at the expense of farmland because your mission is to "promote aviation!" All of these decisions are linked, and we need to be vigilant, connect the dots, and fully understand the grave impacts of what is presently afoot.

[Editor's Note] An edited version of this Op-Ed ran in the Community Section of The Oregonian on Dec. 1, 2011.

Letter to the Editor: Paul Savas' campaign for Clackamas County Chair raises question about his agenda

I read with interest The Oregonian's piece on Comm. Paul Savas running for Clackamas County Chair (Savas sets sights on panel's top seat, Dec. 24), particularly his comment that he "is concerned the agenda set by the current chair isn't in the best interest of Clackamas County residents." As the campaign unfolds, it will be extremely interesting to learn the specifics of the current agenda he is so concerned about. I pointed out in my Op Ed piece three weeks ago that the Maletis brothers are working hard to sway legislators, politicians and public opinion so they can develop Langdon Farms and the surrounding farm land they own, and have donated $2,500 to the campaign of Rep. Dave Hunt (the third candidate for chair). It also turns out that they have donated the same amount to Comm. Savas' campaign. As I asked, are they making these investments because they believe either Hunt or Savas will make such a significant improvement in Clackamas County government? Or does it have more to do with the kind of direction change they hope to see occur?

Ben Williams, Aurora, OR

[Editor's Note] This Letter to the Editor ran in the Community section of The Oregonian on Dec. 30, 2011.

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